Privacy: Social Media’s Growing Counter-Industry

Your tweets are making Twitter a handsome profit. Twitter recently opened archived tweets (read: tweets you yourself cannot access) to Boulder, Colorado-based Gnip Inc. and DataSift Inc., based in the U.K. and San Francisco, which will “re-syndicate” and “extract insight” from your data to help brands “build better relationships with their customers.” The exact price per tweet is unknown.

Doubtless, a new social economy is being built using platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Google and YouTube, to name just a few, and Twitter is by no means alone in carving out a profitable niche for itself. This economy is nothing if not public. It trades in attention, influence, information and, at its best, meaning. It rewards self-revelation. Some even claim it to be the harbinger of a freer, more global and democratic era – and hasn’t this been the case? Perhaps. Call ours the Age of Discovery.

But privacy now costs more as a result. “Privacy was once free. Publicity was once ridiculously expensive,” said entrepreneur Sam Lessin. “Now the opposite is true: You have to pay in a mix of cash, time, social capital, etc. if you want privacy.” As anyone who has confronted Facebook’s reporting system will tell you, managing online privacy can take considerable time and effort. Meanwhile, the cost of not participating online is rising, which will only persuade more of us overtime to embrace openness and its promise of greater opportunity.

Enter the privacy industry and its practitioners: advocacy groups and full-time fundraisers; well-staffed and increasingly sophisticated commissions; legislators and bureaucrats, and the consultants who help companies comply with their new legislation and regulations; and services such as, which promise to protect your online image. Users want to have their proverbial cake and eat it too, which is why privacy is now something to which you can affix a price tag. It’s becoming big business.

By the time Twitter announced it would release its archives to DataSift in March, 2012, the data-filtering company already had more than 700 customers. Little surprise. Given the public’s growing mistrust, even intolerance, of commercial messages, advertisers in our brave new social economy are eager to engage consumers in new ways – namely on users’ terms, with content that appears authentic, and with fewer trappings of traditional commercial advertising. And so the value of our every fearless tweet continues to rise. The cost of privacy grows.

And the difference between advertising and user-generated content becomes more difficult to discern.